Thursday, February 12, 2009

How to Write a Book

Okay, not really (as if it would be that easy). More like how I write a book. There is a lot of talk out there about outlining vs seat-of-your pants writing and I used to be a confirmed seat-of-your-pantser. That came to an end when Agent E. (very gently) showed me the difference between situation and plot. As in "Well, that's a nice situation you've got there. So what exactly is the story?"

If you're an aspiring writer and haven't availed yourself of Verla Kay's Blueboards, you should hustle over there right now. Click on the link to "Message Boards" over on the right hand side and you'll be in a community with both very experienced and novice writers with great topics - it's a writing education in itself. I spend a ridiculous amount of time there.

I mention this because I got this invaluable piece of writing advice there awhile ago: Nine Steps to Plotting Fiction. I'm not sure where the method started, but it is (for me) the best combination between knowing where your book is going and letting the book write itself. You just put in the nine plot issues and connect the dots - more like a guide than a true, scary outline. If you find yourself in the middle of a story and not a clue where you should go, give it a try. Here it is in a nutshell:

9 Steps for Plotting Fiction (Taken from the Verla Kay Message Boards)

Start with a piece of paper. It should be large enough to write on.
I used 11x14 just to give me a little more room, but 8x11 is fine. Draw two parallel lines both vertically and horizontally across the page, creating 9 comparable boxes, as if you
were starting a game of tic-tac-toe. These boxes represent chapters,
scenes, or sections, depending upon your book's intended length.

Number the boxes, starting from the upper left: 1, 2, 3.
Next row, starting from the left: 4, 5, 6.
Last row: 7, 8, 9.
Title each box…

1 Triggering event

First thing's first. What happens? Why have you bothered to write a
book, and more importantly, why should a reader invest time flipping
through its pages. Your triggering event is the answer to those
questions, so make it a good one. Also, don't make the reader wait
very long for it. First page, first paragraph, first sentence.
These are good spots for a triggering event.

2 Characterization

Generally, books succeed or fail on the strength of their characters
more so than on the strength of their plots. The second box is where
you explore what makes your protagonist tick. No, this isn't an
excuse for drawn out exposition, history, or back story. If your
triggering event is captivating, the reader will discover enough
about the protagonist in Box Two simply by reading how he or she
reacts to the event.

3 First major turning point

By now, your plot is picking up steam, and because of Box Two, the
reader is invested in the ride. Time to throw a curve ball. This
turning point can be either a positive event for your protagonist,
or a negative one, but it should lay the groundwork for the negative
turning point in the sixth square. There is a reason these boxes are
touching one another; they interrelate. For example, Box Three may
introduce the motivation of the antagonist, which then justifies the
events in the sixth square.

4 Exposition

You've earned some time to fill the reader in on important data.
Since this box touches the first square, here's where you shed some
light on that triggering event. Since it also touches Box Seven, you
get to foreshadow your pro-tagonist's darkest hour. Box Four often
reveals a relationship, character flaw, or personal history that
contributes to the dark times in ahead.

5 Connect the dots

Here is where many plots fall apart. Box Five represents the
trickiest part of fiction and since Box Five is the center of the
book it must connect to all the squares around it. Kind of like the
nucleus at the center of a bomb, Box Five should tick systematically
upon elements introduced in Box Two and Four. And like the calm
before the storm, the fifth square should give the false impression
of resolution before heading like a freight train to Box Six. Most
importantly, it needs to provide foreshadowing for the protagonist's
revelation in Box Eight. That's a lot for a little box to do, but
focus on efficient prose to get it right. Your plot depends upon it.

6 Negative turning point

Here's where that bomb explodes and all (word censored) breaks loose. Good
thing you laid the groundwork in Box Three. Good thing, too, that
Box Nine will deliver some just desserts.

7 Antagonist wins

The protagonist is defeated here, and the antagonist apparently
wins. How the protagonist deals with the darkest hour of defeat
depend upon the traits and/or story developed in Box Four, which
leads to his or her revelation in the next square.

8 Revelation

Of course! The protagonist's revelation turns the tide. Here is
where the protagonist connects the dots and overcomes the obstacles
of Boxes Six and Seven via the device introduced in Box Five.

9 Protagonist wins

The negative turning point in Box Six is rectified while the
character's resolve from Box Eight is brought into full bloom.
Congratulations! Another great tale told greatly.

Can't wait to see what you come up with!

On this date: In 1809, President Abraham Lincoln is born.


Anonymous said...
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Caroline Starr Rose said...

Always looking for different ways to approach something new. Thanks!

Tamika: said...

I'm so glad I found your beautiful blog. I'm looking forward to trying your plotting techniques.

God bless!

Suzette Saxton said...

This sounds like a fascinating technique. Thank you for sharing it!

CJ Omololu said...

As one who is too impatient to outline, it really works for me - hope it does for you too!

Shawntelle Madison said...

Thanks for posting. Definitely something I will keep in my for my trickier plots.

CJ Omololu said...

I'm so glad this resonates with so many people. The minute I saw it I grabbed it and have been using it ever since.

Bonnie Way aka the Koala Mom said...

Very interesting - thanks for sharing! I used to also be a seat-of-the-pantser, but the more I read about writing, the more I think I'll be plotting the next novel I write... or even plotting the first novel I wrote and now want to rewrite.

CJ Omololu said...

I do find that doing an outline or document map AFTER your first draft can help you see problems more easily.

Good luck with it!

Steve Brezenoff said...

This is so helpful. (Found it via your comment on the BlueBoards, btw.) I just finished a draft of my current YA and am very disappointed with a lot of it, but I think these points are really going to help me revise. THANK YOU!

CJ Omololu said...

So glad Steve! Concentrate on the words "finished a draft" - that's great. Now you get to polish it up, and I think the 9 points help even more once you have some work done.

Jody said...

I'm totally going to try this! It looks awesome.

Anonymous said...
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Crystal said...

Thanks so much for posting this, Cynthia! I'm a blueboarder, too, but I missed this post . . . I'm in revisions for my MG novel & this will be so helpful. Love your blog! :)

Stina said...

Sounds like a great way of doing things. I go about my planning differently, but I always start with an idea, characterization of key players, and an outline (then I do the characterizations for the other players). I couldn't imagine writing without a game plan. :)

Tessa Gratton said...

This morning I thought I would die of novel despair, and now that I've run through my story with this 9-box method I feel much, much better. Thank you! It's very elegant!

Judith said...

This is so helpful to read and reread and use in my revisions. I'm always looking for ways to improve my writing and your blog looks like a good place to come for information. I think I'll invite some other writing friends as well.

Yaya' s Home said...

Outlines never really made sense to me before, but you've brought some clarity to my mind about the real purpose of outlining. With the way you've broken it down, it has lost the mystery of outlining and developed a more personal touch. Thank you.

Judith told me about this and I had to come and see. I'm glad I did.

~ Yaya
Yaya's Home

CJ Omololu said...

I'm so glad you all found it helpful! I'm about to use it again to write synopsis for the next two books - it's the only thing that's worked so far.

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Judith sent me here too. :)

Great post! This sounds like a tool I can use! Thanks for sharing.

Sara said...

I popped over here from a link on the Blue Board.

What a helpful way to make sure one knows the story one is trying to tell -- and that there's an actual story there at all. Thanks for sharing!

Ruth Donnelly said...

I came over from the Blue Boards, too. This is great! Thank you so much for posting it.

CJ Omololu said...

Great! I love it when this gets revived, because it really does work for me.

See you on the BB.

Claire Dawn said...

Nice stuff. I think I will try it out. I have the same problem you had. Plot is kinda optional. lol. Hopefully this will help.

I don't know about getting in tthe trigger in the first paragraph though. We'll see.

CJ Omololu said...

Hope it works for you! You don't have to get the trigger in the first paragraph, but don't make the reader wait too long for it. This point is more important in YA than for adult lit. You can spend a few pages describing the room in grownup books ;)

Kirsten said...

Wow, I've never heard of this before but it makes so much sense! I'm getting out a piece of paper right now :) Thanks for sharing.

MBW aka Olleymae said...

I loooooovvvee this! I've been a panster (and subsequently panicked!!) and this seems like the perfect balance between knowing where you're going and having fun getting there. Thanks so much for sharing!!

ehalter said...

OK, but what do you do between the nine points? Sigh.

Forlorn writer

CJ Omololu said...

Yeah Ellen, that's called the writing part ;) I find that it is much easier with these guideposts though. Good luck and keep going with it!

madlibjen said...

This is so great - thank you! I used it last night and yep, box 5 almost did me in. But I rearranged everything and got it all figured out. Funnily enough, my triggering event wasn't at all what I thought it was.

kiperoo said...

Hey Cyn!

I am just starting a new project and had to dig this up again, so thanks for having it here!

Miss you, and hope all is well!

The mad woman behind the blog said...

Hey there, wise friend. Wanted to let you know that I share this link with every writer I come across that mentions they're struggling.

Thought you should know!

Ash said...

The mad woma(above) sent me to your link - sooooo glad she did. I'm in the beginning stages of organizing my thoughts. This post is printing out as I type.

Thank you for your pointers!! Can't wait to dive into your blog even more.

Kari said...

This outline method has helped me so much. I wanted to come back and tell you thank you so much for sharing!

CJ Omololu said...

Hi Ash and Kari - so glad it worked for you! I love sharing what has worked for me as I fumble through this writing thing ;)

Anonymous said...

this is awesome! im a little confused about box 5, you mind explaining it a bit more?